Have yourself a merry meat-free Christmas, Polish style. Here’s how to make beetroot borsht accompanied by baked spelt pierogi filled with sauerkraut, courtesy of food writer and author of Polska: New Polish Cooking, Zuza Zak.
Despite the Poles having a reputation as a meat-loving nation, the most important Christmas meal in Poland – which takes place on Christmas Eve – is actually meat-free. The celebrations last for hours, with new dishes being brought out at regular intervals, and in total there should be 12 or 13 meat-free dishes – one for each of the apostles, some also counting Jesus.
The whole affair is rich in symbolism and food, so it helps that the food doesn’t contain meat, as it’s easier to digest. There is no get out clause, as folk wisdom dictates that everyone must try everything on the table, so that there is nothing missing in your life in the year to come! Personally, I believe that Polish food is incredibly well suited to vegetarianism and love to prepare meat-free Polish feasts. Here are a some traditional recipes to get you in the Polish festive spirit, complete with a few comforting twists, thanks to fermentation.
Clear Borscht with Fermented Beetroot Juice (or without)
10-15 dried mushrooms (preferably boletus)
3 litres water
4-5 beetroot, peeled
1 celery stalk with leaves
1-2 bay leaves
5-6 allspicce berries
200ml fermented beetroot juice (see below)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (2-3 if no fermented beetroot juice)
2 pieces dulse seaweed (optional)
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon caster sugar
Salt and white pepper to taste
Soured cream or crème fraiche to serve (optional)
To make the fermented beetroot juice
Peel and chop one large beetroot and place in a ceramic container. Cover with about 2 inches of warm water with half a tablespoon of sea salt dissolved in it. Add one bay leaf and four to five allspice berries. If you have some rye bread then place a slice of that on top for 24 hours then remove with a slotted spoon. Cover with a dishcloth and leave in a warm place in your kitchen for about three to four days. Transfer to a sterilised jar and keep in the fridge. You can add the chopped beetroot to salads and the brine to smoothies for an extra health kick!
If you don’t have time or simply can’t be bothered, then don’t worry about the fermented beetroot juice. In my cookbook Polska I forgo it, as my main aim was to make Polish cooking more accessible.
1. Cover the dried mushrooms in boiling water in a bowl for about 10 minutes then drain and wash in cold water. Place them back into the bowl and cover again with boiling water – this time let them stand for about an hour. Transfer to a pan with 1 litre of water and cook for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
2. Cook all the vegetables for 1 hour in 2 litres of water along with the bay leaves, peppercorns, seaweed (if using) and allspice berries.
3. Strain both broths through a sieve and into a fresh pan. Add the fermented beetroot juice, lemon juice, sugar and season.
4. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes more. Taste and season again to your own taste.
5. You can serve this with a dollop of soured cream or crème fraiche on top if you so choose.
Baked Spelt Pierogi with Sauerkraut and Wild Mushrooms
I’ve recently started making my baked pierogi with the lovely spelt flour from Farmdrop – I use half white flour and half spelt as the spelt makes the dough more crumbly. When you are not using the dough, keep it under an damp tea towel so that it doesn’t dry out and try to work reasonably fast. You can do it with all white flour if you prefer, which makes the dough more manageable but I prefer the texture of the spelt dough when baked. Don’t worry if the pierogi break open a bit whilst cooking – it only adds to their rustic charm. Shop the recipe.
175g spelt flour
175g plain flour
About 75-100ml ice cold water
150g butter, room temperature
150g sauerkraut, drained (see below)
100g wild mushrooms, fresh – chopped and fried in butter
10 dried mushrooms (I used chanterelles)
2 allspice berries
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoon rapeseed oil
Beaten egg for glazing
To make the sauerkraut
Chop a white cabbage finely and place in a ceramic container (you could reserve one big leaf to place on top). Cover it in a tablespoon of sea salt. Rub this into the cabbage and then pound with a pestle. Place a plate over the top with an additional weight and leave for 24 hours, pressing down on it whenever you remember. After 24 hours, pound it some more. If it has not released enough juices to completely cover the cabbage – don’t worry, mine rarely does! – cover it with some warm water with another teaspoon of sea salt dissolved in it. You can cover it with that leaf now if you have it to hand then put a plate or something on top to keep the cabbage covered. Cover with a tea towel to keep bugs out and leave at room temperature (or slightly warmer is also good) for three to five days, then transfer to sterilised jar and keep in the fridge.
1. Cover the dried mushrooms in boiling water in a bowl for about 10 minutes, then drain and wash in cold water. Place them back in the bowl and cover again with boiling water – this time let them stand for about an hour. Transfer them to a saucepan covered with about one inch of water – use the juice that they were soaking in if possible.
2. Simmer gently on the hob for 45 minutes before adding the sauerkraut, bay leaf and allspice berries then continue cooking for another 45 minutes. If the mixture gets dry at any point then add a splash of sauerkraut brine or white wine.
3. Fry the wild mushrooms in the butter in another pan until well browned, then add to the dried mushroom mixture. Cook on a low-medium heat all together for at least 30 minutes. Allow to cool, then blend.
4. Make the dough while the filling is cooking. Place the flours in a bowl, add the butter and the oil and blend together with your hands until well combined.
5. Pour the ice cold water in a little at a time to create a soft dough. Knead well for a few minutes until a smooth ball is made, the place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C and lightly grease a baking tray (or use baking paper).
7. Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut out round shapes – you can use a large wine glass for this.
8. Put a heaped teaspoon of dough in the middle and bring the edges of the circle together to from a half-moon shape. Press down well on the edges to seal.
9. Place on a baking tray and glaze with the egg. Bake for 30 minutes in the oven.